Lord Browne was revered as a visionary leader at BP
On a wall in Lord Browne’s office in Mayfair is a series of black and white pictures by the American photographer Aaron Siskind called The Pleasures And Terrors Of Levitation, showing a man frozen in mid air.
In the images, which date from the 1950s, it’s impossible to tell whether the man is about to soar joyfully skywards, or whether the photographer has captured him on the point of an anguished plunge to earth.
Lord Browne’s career has encompassed similar extremes and ambiguities. A couple of decades ago, he was revered as a visionary leader at BP, lauded as the Sun King of the oil industry and the most successful British executive of his generation.
Then in 2007, came the Icarus-like fall from grace. After decades of living a precarious double life where he went to great lengths to conceal his sexuality, he was outed by an ex-boyfriend, a former escort named Jeff Chevalier.
About to turn 60, he resigned from the company where he had worked for four decades after telling an untruth in court about how he and Chevalier had met. He was forced to build a new career and a new life after years of hiding his true self. More than a decade on, it is clear that the trauma of that exposure, painful though it was, has opened a fruitful new chapter for Browne personally and professionally.
Now aged 71 he is happily ensconced in a 12-year relationship. He is also executive chairman of L1 Energy, a large independent oil and gas company, as well as serving as chairman of the UK subsidiary of Chinese tech company Huawei, among other roles.
Art has been a lifelong passion and in the past a coded form of self-expression. As well as the series of photographs, he has in his office prints by Italian Renaissance painter Veronese, Venetian glass work and a water colour of the oilfields of Iran, where he lived for part of his childhood when his father also worked for BP.
He began collecting in 1969 when he bought a David Hockney lithograph that cost ‘every penny I had’ from a dealer in Paddington, west London.
Browne added: ‘I adored it because he was a gay icon and I was so firmly in the closet then that it was a nice way of expressing myself,’ he says.
‘I have met Hockney. He is my hero. He is a great guy. I haven’t a lot of his work because it is gigantically expensive – just a few pieces, mostly works on paper.’
Browne, an only child, was born in Hamburg in 1948. His father Edmund died in 1980. His mother Paula, who was of Jewish descent, had survived the horrors of Auschwitz, though most of her family were murdered in the camps. She was a huge influence on her son’s life but died in 2000.
‘Of course I miss her still. When you are an adult orphan, it doesn’t matter how old you are, you miss your parents,’ he says.
His belief for most of his life that he had to keep his sexuality secret stemmed directly from her wartime experiences.
‘My mother would drill into me never tell anyone a secret as it will be used against you, never be a visible member of a minority because you always get hurt when the going gets tough.
As a young man, Browne, who read physics at St John’s College, Cambridge and graduated with a First, wanted to be a professor of geophysics but his father told him to get a ‘real job’ in the oil industry
‘Plus, there were so many conversations around me about ‘shirt-lifters’ and people who like pink. I think she knew I was gay but she didn’t want to engage with it,’ he says.
Although it was a strain to keep such a secret for so long, he believes it may have helped him in his professional dealings, by keeping him in a state of hyper-alertness.
As a young man, Browne, who read physics at St John’s College, Cambridge and graduated with a First, wanted to be a professor of geophysics but his father told him to get a ‘real job’ in the oil industry.
It turned out to be wise advice as his son rose to be the youngest ever chief executive of BP in 1995.
Three years later in 1998, he masterminded a $110 billion merger with American giant Amoco, which is still arguably the most significant deal in BP’s history. His main job is at L1 Energy, where he has been chairman since 2015. It is part of the Letter One Group, which owns a wide range of assets including health food chain Holland & Barrett. He got the job through his friend Mikhail Fridman, a Russian oligarch who is one of the founders.
My mother would drill into me never be a visible member of a minority because you always get hurt when the going gets tough
Browne met Fridman when the pair, along with two other oligarchs, Len Blavatnik and Viktor Vekselberg, did a deal to create TNK-BP, a huge Russian oil venture in 2003. It was bought by Russian oil giant Rosneft a decade later.
‘Mikhail rang and said, ‘Could you set me up an oil and gas company and make some money?’ Browne says.
L1 Energy owns the German oil and gas producer DEA, which is in the process of merging with German rival Wintershall.
‘Now DEA produces 120,000 barrels a day and is growing very quickly,’ he says.
Letter One and German chemical giant BASF are merging their oil and gas interests to create a new company, called Wintershall DEA, which will be the largest independent European exploration and production company. The merger is expected to complete later this year.
‘By the early 2020s Wintershall DEA will be producing 800,000 barrels a day. The big thing about this company is it is 70pc gas, which is beautiful. Oil is not beautiful. Gas has less carbon, it is much more environmentally friendly and has lots of different uses.’
The plan is to float, probably on the Frankfurt stock exchange. As to timing, ‘it all depends because the market is a bit unpredictable at the moment’.
Browne adds: ‘It certainly won’t be as big as BP but I believe we can deliver a good return.’
He has a flourishing sideline as an author and has just finished writing his fifth book, due to be published at the end of May, called Make, Think, Imagine: Engineering The Future Of Civilisation.
His previous tomes include The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good Business and Beyond Business, the story of how he built BP from a two-pipeline company to a global giant. Browne was one of the first oil industry bosses to address, head on, the issue of climate change, in a landmark speech in 1997 at Stanford University in California.
‘Energy is what everyone needs, but no one wants to know where it comes from,’ he says. ‘Most people think electricity comes from behind the wall.
‘We could eliminate carbon but the cost would be astronomic and it would have to be top priority around the world. I can’t see it. On the one hand it is absolutely the right thing to do, technically we can do it but practically we probably won’t.
‘We have left it a bit late. If we had started deploying the technology back when I made my speech then we would have been in a much better place by now.’
Does he miss BP? ‘The nice thing was it happened and it is part of my history. I liked the past but I am more interested in the future.’
One thing he does deeply regret, however, is feeling he could not be open about being gay, though in his early years homosexuality was not just socially unacceptable but a criminal offence.
‘My own head was tuned the wrong way, partly because of all the years and years and years when actually to come out would have been a disaster. Not just career suicide, it would have been a human suicide in some cases.’
He says: ‘I got into that mode of believing if I came out people would think I was useless, to be ignored, and so I hid it away.
‘I just think what it did was make me a colder person. People say I smile a lot more now.’
Could there be a chief executive of BP now who was openly gay?
‘Yes,’ he answers, ‘that would be fine,’ before adding: ‘It is not wholly straightforward though. Boards are very conservative and mostly male. A lot of people even now are openly gay at university and they go straight back into the closet when they go into business or finance.’
He has been in a relationship for 12 years with his boyfriend Nghi Nguyen, a restaurateur.
‘Life is very different,’ he says with a smile. Will they marry?
‘My partner is very unconventional and doesn’t approve of these conventional activities. Who knows? I think as a practical matter at some stage we should, just in case something happens.’
His mother, he thinks, would be proud of him now.
‘She changed her views according to the times. I took her to the Holocaust museum in Washington DC, she laid some flowers and I burst out crying. She said, ‘What’s wrong with you – it’s only a museum’, and that was the end of the matter. What does that tell you? It tells you about moving on.’